Series Preview: Cubs at Athletics, August 5–7

The Cubs travel to Oakland for a three-game series against the A’s this weekend, a match-up that’s more than tempting to frame as a battle of high-profile front office execs. Or, if not a battle—given the disparate states of these two franchises—at least a meditation on the paths of two of the game’s biggest movers.

For all that Billy Beane and Theo Epstein are cut from the same cloth, thus setting them up to be perfect rivals, the true dovetailing effect has come from the fact that the two men have not been shy in dealing directly with each other, especially when their teams find themselves in different stages of development. To look at this current Cubs roster is to see, woven in, the threads of their past transactions.

There’s Chris Coghlan, who was traded from Chicago to Oakland in February for pitcher Aaron Brooks, then traded right back to the Cubs in exchange for Arismendy Alcántara. There’s Addison Russell, of course—the Athletics’ 2012 first-round pick, who was the centerpiece of 2014’s “win now” swap for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Obviously there’s Hammel himself, who quickly found a spot back with the Cubs before 2015. You could say there’s even Aroldis Chapman, whose trade involved Billy McKinney being sent to the Yankees, McKinney being the other Oakland prospect who came to Chicago in the Russell deal. Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist, too, were once Oakland A’s.

Here in 2016, it’s the Cubs who are solidly in “win now” mode, with the A’s more closely resembling the Cubs of 2014, albeit with less of a clear design. With a 48-60 record and their roster now further thinned following the trades of Rich Hill and Josh Reddick to the Dodgers, this isn’t a series of particular consequence for the A’s, but it’s one the Cubs would and should do well to take soundly.

Probable Starters

Friday: Jon Lester v. Dillon Overton

In 2014’s American League Wild Card game, the A’s last taste of postseason baseball, it was of course Lester on the mound wearing the green and gold. Those were simpler times, when word of Lester’s inability to throw to bases was a brand new discovery, and I—actually an A’s fan—was, oh, casually tearing my hair out watching the Royals leg their way to an extra-inning victory. It was a bitter note to end on for all involved, but Lester’s time in Oakland did open the gates for his eventual signing with the Cubs, breaking down a barrier for him in playing for a team other than the Red Sox.

Lester has been doing his part this season to keep the Cubs on the road to October, but the month of July was a mixed bag for him. Lester’s ERA for that period was a painful 7.36, and while this is largely a product of his four-out, eight-run July 3 outing against the Mets, four of Lester’s six July starts finished at four innings or less. Encouragingly, the Cubs left-hander is coming off a very solid outing this past week against the Mariners, in which he threw six scoreless innings, fanning seven.

The foil to Lester’s veteran presence, lefty Dillon Overton, made his Oakland A’s debut on June 25 of this year, and despite having only four starts under his belt, he’s already in his third major-league stint. It’s no wonder he’s yet to find his rhythm, given this spot starter role he’s repeatedly taken on. In Overton’s 18 ⅓ innings so far, he’s allowed 19 runs and 34 hits, including nine home runs. It’s a historically bad start to a career and the result of failing to command the strike zone the way he had in the minors. Location is everything when your fastball sits at 88-89 MPH, and Overton’s best pitch, his change up, hasn’t been doing him significant favors either.

Saturday: Jake Arrieta v. Sonny Gray

Were this 2015, Arrieta taking on Gray would be an unmissable battle of Cy Young contenders, but the view from 2016 shows quite a different picture. While Arrieta is still his team’s ace, particularly now that he’s regained dependability and form after the All-Star break, Gray is practically in free-fall, just one of many issues Oakland has had with their starting rotation this year. Gray leads the league in wild pitches; were this a result of the sometimes-unbelievable movement he can generate with his five-pitch arsenal, that would be fine. Instead, it’s the product of having barely trace amounts of command. The A’s righty has a 5.84 ERA, 4.76 FIP, and 1.52 WHIP this season and has already surpassed his career-worst 17 home runs allowed. It’s anyone’s best guess what Gray will look like against a formidable Cubs batting order.

Sunday: Kyle Hendricks v. Sean Manaea

It wasn’t so long ago that declaring Hendricks by far the best fifth starter in the league typified the kind of appreciative praise you’d hear. Now, we’ve started invoking the name of Cy Young, and for some good reasons.

Hendricks most recently shut out the Marlins over nine innings, which at the very least makes him the savior of the Cubs bullpen. His 2.22 ERA ranks third in the league, his 25.9 percent soft hit rate is the best in baseball, and maintaining a ground ball rate of over 50 percent goes a long way when your fastball flashes at 89 MPH. Interesting as of late has been witnessing how Hendricks deploys and mixes his pitches in varying proportions. It’s the sort of thing you can play with when you possess the flawless command Hendricks has right now.

24 year-old Sean Manaea was the main prize for the A’s last year in the deal that sent familiar face Ben Zobrist from Oakland to Kansas City (the other piece Oakland received? Current Cubs minor-leaguer Aaron Brooks. The cycle continues.). Like Overton, he’s a bit unseasoned yet. In an ideal world, Manaea would have been a candidate for a September call-up this year, but with the A’s supply of healthy starters always dwindling, his development has been happening on a bigger stage, with a 4.68 ERA to show for it. The left-hander uses just three pitches: four-seam, change up, and slider, all of which have decent sink. The fastball reaches the mid-90s, while the change up and slider are Manaea’s tickets toward generating grounders.

What to Watch For:

Home runs, probably. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant have been quite the power duo for the Cubs, with 24 and 26 homers respectively. Zobrist and Javy Baez have been wholly decent as well, putting up 13 and 10. The Cubs should get an additional offensive boost this weekend through the use of a designated hitter and through the A’s starters’ struggles with the longball.

While Oakland’s lineup overall has been lacking, they do have their own two heavy bats in Khris Davis and Marcus Semien, in addition to the perplexing wild card that is Danny Valencia. Davis this season has now equaled a career-high 27 homers, while Semien, with 22, passed his career mark of 15 some time ago. Semien, Oakland’s starting shortstop, was part of the A’s haul when they flipped Samardzija to the White Sox just half a season after acquiring him from the Cubs, and his numbers plus improvement in form this year have gone a surprising distance towards healing A’s fans sorrow over the Russell trade. It stands as a reminder that in baseball, the world will always keep turning, and Theo and Billy will seemingly always have their eyes on too many of the same players.

Game Times, Broadcast Info, Etc.:

Friday night’s game in Oakland will be broadcast on CSN Chicago, and it’s a late one, kicking off your weekend at 9:05pm CST. CSN will also show Saturday’s 3:05pm contest, while WGN has you covered at 3:05pm on Sunday. As always, 670 The Score is your radio home.

Lead photo courtesy Richard Mackson—USA Today Sports.

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